There aren't a huge number of people still playing Halo online. Franchise custodians 343 know this. And ahead of the launch of Halo 5: Guardians, potentially the biggest Xbox One exclusive yet, it's time to do something about it.
343's answer is to release a game packed to bursting point with Halo fan service, tap into the wide-eyed nostalgia so many of us have for Halo 2, and throw in access to an early version of the next major game in the blockbuster first-person shooter franchise. That's what Halo: The Master Chief Collection is; the video game to spark the Halo community back to life.
The package includes Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition, Halo 2 Anniversary Edition, Halo 3 and Halo 4; the Ridley Scott-produced digital TV series Halo Nightfall, which tells the origin story of Agent Locke, the new character 343 introduced with its recently-released Halo 5 visual ID; and, crucially, entry into the Halo 5: Guardians beta, due to kick off this December.
Details are still vague on Halo Nightfall, although we know it's in full production, and the Halo 5 beta, although we know it revolves around the arena. So we'll focus on the video games you get on day one. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition, a new Halo 2 Anniversary Edition made by Certain Affinity and Saber Interactive, and ports of Xbox 360 games Halo 3 and Halo 4 by Crackdown 2 developer Ruffian, all tied together with a shiny new interface.
Graphically, Halo 2 Anniversary has been completely remastered, with new, modern cinematics created by CGI specialist Blur. As with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition, you can switch between the original engine graphics and the new engine graphics at the push of a button. But unlike Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 2 Anniversary transitions from engine to engine instantly. It's a similar deal with Halo 2's audio, which was remastered with the help of Skywalker Sound. As you switch between graphics engines, you switch between the classic audio and the remastered audio. "It's like seeing 10 years of gaming evolution at the touch of a button," executive producer Dan Ayoub beams.
Halo 3 and 4, however, have not received the remaster treatment. These ports focus more on post-processing effort and the bump to 60 frames per second the Xbox One enables. The original art assets have not been touched, but according to 343 senior producer Dennis Ries, "they just look better because they're on the Xbox One with more power."
Halo franchise development director Frank O'Connor expands on the point, insisting we'll still see a significant visual improvement: "We're not doing anything specifically to the engines outside of porting them onto the Intel architecture on the Xbox One, but we're doing a lot with image quality," he tells Eurogamer.
"You obviously get a boost from just going to 1080p60 and dedicated servers, but in the case of Halo 3 and Halo 4 in particular, there's a lot of stuff that's in the frame buffer that just doesn't show up on the screen because of the limitations of Xbox 360.
"So Halo 4 is a really good showcase to the point where it kind of almost looks next-gen in some scenes, just with that lift. And there's some stuff that pops that just isn't visible on the Xbox 360. So a lot of it is just to do with image quality and performance, but you'll definitely see really significant improvements without us actually touching the code."
"Halo 4 is a really good showcase to the point where it kind of almost looks next-gen in some scenes."
Halo franchise development director Frank O'Connor
All the campaign levels across all the games are unlocked from the start, so you can jump straight into The Ark from Halo 3 as soon as you've popped the disc in the drive, if you want.
"Everyone can remember the first time they played a Halo game," Ayoub says. "Everyone remembers their first Halo experience. It came down to putting the power in the hands of the fans to relive that experience however you want. We couldn't really create that experience by just doing the usual 'we're going to throw a bunch of discs in a box'. So we wanted to do something a little more elegant. That's where the interface was born."
One cool addition is curated campaign playlists that take players through levels grouped together by a common theme. One example is you can play all of the levels in Halo Combat Evolved that feature vehicles. Another is the Flooded playlist, which takes you through all the levels across all four games that contain the Flood enemy. Tanks, Tanks Tanks groups together all the levels across all the games with tanks. And for fans of dramatic climaxes, The Final Four playlist includes the last four levels from each game. Warthogs ahoy.
But The Master Chief Saga, which starts with The Pillar of Autumn from Halo: Combat Evolved and ends with Midnight from Halo 4, will be the playlist worth streaming. That's all four games back to back - one hell of a gaming marathon.
Ries tells Eurogamer he's toying with the idea of having a few game testers try out the playlist, just to see how long it takes. He estimates roughly 32 hours, given each game can be completed in around eight hours on the normal difficulty.
"But you get speedrun guys who can play the game in two hours," he says. "You might end up with the fastest time of six or seven hours."
I can imagine running through The Master Chief Saga over the course of a weekend with a mate or two in co-op, rekindling memories of afternoons that became evenings that became mornings while at university. Get the beers in, some pizza, and gorge on old-school Halo until I burst into nostalgic flame. The only negative is you won't be able to create your own custom playlists, which is a shame. Ries says they must be curated, but 343 will update them over time based on community demand.
"You get speedrun guys who can play the game in two hours. You might end up with the fastest time of six or seven hours."
343 senior producer Dennis Ries on The Master Chief Saga playlist
But for me, the main attraction of The Master Chief Collection is the competitive multiplayer. It includes all the Halo maps ever shipped on console and PC, including six Halo 2 maps recreated by original Halo 2 multiplayer designer Max Hoberman, now boss of Certain Affinity, with the new engine. That's over 100 maps.
Some of Bungie's maps are FPS classics: Halo 2's Ivory Tower was brilliant. Ascension was superb. But my favourite was Lockout: Battle Rifle burst after Battle Rifle burst after Battle Rifle burst. It's going to be great to play them again, to see the balanced, old-school Halo competitive multiplayer jolted back into life in 60fps and, hopefully, 1080p.
343 has filtered the maps by game type. So, you make a decision about the mode you want to play, say Team Slayer for example, then the game searches for players. Once the matchmaking is complete, it digs up a few random maps lifted across all the games. You might get a Halo 3 map and two Halo 2 maps, or one from Halo 1, one from Halo 2 and one from Halo 3, or three from Halo 4. The players vote on which one they want to play then get stuck in.
Whatever the decision, the game switches to the engine the multiplayer map was originally created for. So if you select a Halo 3 map, the Halo 3 multiplayer engine comes up and you play Halo 3 as it existed when it launched in 2007. After that game, you might pick a Halo 4 map. At this point the Halo 4 engine is used, and so on. It's worth noting that you can still create custom games, so if you just want to play multiplayer on Halo 4 on Complex on whatever game type, you can.
Crucially, all four games run at 60 frames per second. But 343 still isn't sure if it'll get all four games to output at 1080p resolution. It's looking good for Halo 1, 3 and 4, but Halo 2 is the sticking point, which I find slightly bizarre.
"We're heading for 1080p," Ries says. "That's what we want to do, but I can't commit to that right now.
"Some of the levels in Halo 4 are already running at 1080p. I'm confident some of the games will get there. I'm not confident in all of them."
"The only open question right now is Halo 2 Anniversary mode," O'Connor adds, "because we have the two frame buffers, and we're doing Xbox One level of graphics. The idea is we try and get it to 1080p but we may have to sacrifice the resolution on that to have that mode. Our target is to get to 1080p."
The terminals from Halo: Combat Evolved also return in Halo 2 Anniversary. In Halo 1 terminals unlocked a motion comic that teased story details for Halo 4 from the perspective of pesky floating sphere Guilty Spark. Similarly, the terminals in Halo 2 Anniversary tease the story of Halo 5, but this time from the perspective of The Arbiter - Master Chief's Covenant Sangheili friend.
Speaking of Halo 5, Halo: The Master Chief Collection includes beta access for Halo 5. The beta begins on 27th December and runs for three weeks to 15th January. As Microsoft announced during its E3 press conference, the beta focuses on the competitive multiplayer arena, and is designed to gather feedback that will be used to shape the full game due out autumn 2015.
"We said, what would it take to put them all on one Xbox, on one disc, with one interface? It was like, well, it would be a lot of work. We just committed to it and that was it."
To my mind Halo: The Master Chief Collection is an impressive package, one that I'm finding hard to resist, as a self-confessed Halo nerd. And at Ł49.99 it's immense value (has there ever been a game that includes over 100 multiplayer maps?). In a behind-closed-doors presentation, 343 boss Bonnie Ross called the game "a gift to the fans". I wouldn't go that far, since you, you know, have to actually buy it. But it's hard to argue that you're not getting your money's worth.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection launches on 11th November 2014, exactly 10 years after the original Halo 2 released on the original Xbox and changed online console gaming forever. Halo 2, some argue, gave Xbox the boost it needed, and it certainly helped establish the Xbox Live platform. Frank O'Conner reckons Halo 2 even sparked take-up in high-speed internet in the States, amongst a certain demographic.
It was such an important game for Xbox that doing something special for its 10-year anniversary was "obvious", he says.How a tiny studio invented Diablo, and the action RPG 'All the technology we built was based on a single screen grab from X-Com.'
"We knew we were going to do something. When we made Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary we had a discussion about all the other games. We're in the third generation of Xbox hardware now and you've never had the whole story on one console. You always feel like you're passing a baton from one generation to the next and asking people to embrace this long-running story without necessarily all of the context for it to work.
"So we said, what would it take to put them all on one Xbox, on one disc, with one interface? It was like, well, it would be a lot of work. We just committed to it and that was it."
Halo 4 launched to great fanfare and impressive sales, but people failed to stick with it in the same numbers as they did with previous Halo games. Halo: The Master Chief Collection will no doubt get newcomers into the Halo franchise, and given it tells the whole story from start to finish, it serves as a neat introduction point. But it will also entice lapsed Halo fans, like me, to take a trip down memory lane - dual-wielding SMGs, of course. And for 343, that's just what Halo needs.